The dangers of celebrating Refugee Week

By Fadak Alfayadh
celebration danger refugee week

For this year’s Refugee Week, I was asked to present a speech about my personal story of displacement. Along with other speakers, I was given five minutes to speak about an event that changed my whole life, and one that usually results in people losing their lives. I refused to speak at that event due to the massive erasure of refugee struggles in Australia that has caused us to forget those who have died in our detention centres. So much so that we spend a week celebrating art, music and dance whilst Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers is offshore and forgotten.

I could not allow myself to be part of celebrating my survival whilst millions of us continue to be displaced, and whilst a lot of us are still not allowed to reunite with our families, simply because of their mode of arrival. Refugee week should not only be a joyous celebration. It should unite us in the fight against the hyper-militarisation of borders that are designed to oppress those most in need.

Refugee Week is an annual celebration of refugee communities and was held this year in Australia between Sunday 18 June and Saturday 24 June 2017. Its purpose is to raise awareness about the issues affecting refugees and celebrate the positive contributions made by refugees to Australian society through arts, culture and educational events. However, strangely it is the nations hosting the least numbers of refugees per capita that annually celebrate Refugee Week.

The most troubling part of Refugee Week is the way in which Australia can celebrate refugee and asylum seeker communities while repeatedly contravening the international principle of non-refoulement, so that people are turned back to face danger. Australia has a miniscule refugee intake per capita, but has taken it upon itself to celebrate a cause it has failed to respect.

The way Australia has confined, pushed back and tortured refugees and asylum seekers make it a nation undeserving of celebrating refugee communities. Australia’s refugee policy makes it a nation unworthy of our achievements and our diversities for as long as our communities continue to be demonised, tortured and imprisoned.

Understandably, it is much easier to celebrate than to organise for direct action. In times like these however, we must mobilise our communities to create meaningful and long lasting change for refugees.

Refugee Week is largely celebrated by Western nations, many of which have viewed it necessary to militarise their borders and contain the movement of refugees and people seeking asylum. Australia’s policies have demonstrated that the nation sees asylum seekers and refugees (more recently, migrants too) as threats to Australian values and not as valuable members of Australian society. The celebrations during the week highlight the stark hypocrisy where as a nation we unite to celebrate refugee bodies and experiences, while simultaneously torturing and imprisoning them.

By celebrating Refugee Week, we are deviating from the issues that affect refugees and these celebrations in song and dance symbolise how our world is so far removed from what refugees are actually experiencing, and how we continuously fail to be effective allies. This is especially evident seeing that Refugee Week was also celebrated by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection and involved politicians, who continuously oppress refugees, participating in these events. While the Department and its officials were partaking in Refugee Week celebrations, they had also approved deportations and conducted PR skits to demonise and criminalise refugee communities.

Our refugee communities should be celebrated; although we are some of the most vulnerable people in the world, we are also some of the most resilient and brave. However, these celebrations should take place alongside grassroots activism and direct action showing the nation’s leaders that we will not tolerate the xenophobic war they are waging on refugees and asylum seekers. It is not enough to celebrate what refugees have achieved. In fact, it is insulting and causes a massive erasure of the calamities refugees are experiencing in Australia and all over the world.

Refugee Week should be a time where we unite with other activists to bring down the systems that continue to oppress our communities. Understandably, it is much easier to celebrate than to organise for direct action. In times like these however, we must mobilise our communities to create meaningful and long lasting change for refugees. The advocates and activists in the refugee space should not use this time as an opportunity to relieve themselves of the responsibility they have towards refugees inside and outside of detention centres.

Whilst well-meaning individuals took part in celebrating Refugee Week, it is time to recognise that as a nation, we have enormous work to do to assist people who seek asylum. Let us focus our “refugee-loving” efforts upon creating solid outcomes for refugee communities and in pushing for measures that have long-term benefits for refugees, instead of mere symbolic gestures that have no effect on meaningful change. Think about how you and your organisation can ethically commemorate the resilience of refugees whilst constantly rallying for their freedom of movement. Consider how you can use your resources and your privilege to assist refugee communities in the overcoming of barriers to reunite with their families, to cross borders and to live in protection.